Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Suburban Sex Trade

Late last year I drove most evenings to Windward City Shopping Center, at the junction of Kamehameha Highway and the Likelike Highway, to pick up my daughter, getting a ride from soccer practice in Honolulu. Our meeting point was Starbucks, which sits at the corner of the shopping center across the highway from Kaiser Permanente's newly renovated facility. The bus stop nearby is usually populated with Castle High School kids, homeless people, commuters. It was usually getting dark when I arrived and it was dark by the time she and I left for home. One evening I got there a little earlier than usual and parked my car in a stall that faced away from Starbucks, toward the First Hawaiian bank building. Maybe I had the radio on, and certainly I was making an inventory of the day, my time in the classroom, the state of my department, how much I drive these days, and so forth. I noticed a large sedan parked in front of me, one stall to the side, facing me. A local man sat in the car's driver's seat, his arm braced against his car door. I went back to my inventory. There was a young woman in very short shorts knocking at the dark window of the passenger side of the car. The door opened. My scattered inventory continued. A few minutes later I noticed that the car had not gone anywhere, that the man, whom I could see in only shadowy form, was no longer leaning against the driver's window, that there were movements in the car. I returned to consideration of my course on Memory & Forgetting and vaguely wondered if I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. The windows the dark sedan began to fog up, but the car itself went nowhere. Whatever going was happening did not involve the car's engine. People came and went from the parking lot, but no one noticed that car, or me. My vague wondering gathered coherence, its laces knotted. My daughter arrived. It was dark, the man and the young woman had been in the car at least 15 minutes, and his headlights came on. My daughter and I drove home.

I told my husband what I'd seen: "Talk to the shopping center security, not the cops; the cops won't do anything."

I told two ministers, former neighbors, what I'd seen, and the man replied, "It wasn't me!"

I told the woman who drove my daughter to the mall and she said, "I guess Kāneʻohe's more interesting than we all thought!"

I told a colleague, who yelled at me, saying I was complicit, that the children need to be safe. Call 911, he told me.

I told a second colleague about the first colleague; she said we're all under stress.

I filled in an on-line HPD form about the incident; there was no response. I looked several times for security, but found no one. A cashier at Foodland said they wear Securitas uniforms, but none were to be found.

I told a friend, wondering what to do, who said, "prostitution is illegal." 

When I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, one summer, I was in a second story apartment near the corner of Prospect and York (was it?). That corner was where women in Yale gym shorts came to advertise their bodies, where cars went around and around the block slowly. That corner was where one night, and one night only, the prostitutes were men. When my mother drove to pick me up at the end of the summer, I said, "there's something I need to tell you." When she came to the apartment in the evening and looked out the window, she inquired, "where's the action?"

We went to Cambodia last winter with a Baptist missionary group, because the local Cambodians we know attend a Baptist Church. In Phnom Penh, we stayed in a hotel that looked like "Mean Hour" in English. It was a large building with large rooms and beds that were more springs than mattresses. There were no shower doors, just a slanted floor with a drain in the middle. The views were of Phnom Penh, vast, chaotic, full of motor bikes and markets, crowds of people (mostly young, for reasons historical and cultural), and of tourists. There was only one small elevator for those of us staying in this large hotel. I got on with my children (13 and 11 at the time). More than once we were greeted by a young woman (or another) in tight short dress, standing next to a man. She would make eye contact, might look at the kids in a way I could not fathom. She and she and the men always got off at the fourth floor.

When we mentioned this to the group leader, a very devout and beautiful man, he said he liked having an enormous room in that hotel where he could store the mission's supplies (everything from toothbrushes to over the counter medications to toys), that he could keep the room even when he was traveling to other parts of the country.

On Thursday, I presented Charles Reznikoff's "Negroes" to my new class of documentary writing students. They talked about their emotions in the face of a poem that conveyed none. Shock, sadness, anger. "He's calling on us to do something," one student said. I might worry that what I've written asks too little of its reader, or of me.

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